Tuesday, September 17, 2013

In the safe hands of God

Daivathinte Swantham Cleetus (Malayalam)
Director: Marthandan
Cast: Mammootty, Siddique, P. Balachandran, Honey Rose
Playing character after character cloaked in yards of goodness did not help a career graph that seemed to be spiralling downwards. So taking a chance and playing a baddie who eventually gets reformed, with a little help from God, seems wise.
And with the festive season on in God’s own country, director Marthandan’s Daivathinte Swantham Cleetus could provide that first tiny swing upward for actor Mammootty’s career graph.
Cleetus (Mammootty) is a small time goon who is roped in to play Jesus Christ in a Biblical light-and-sound show by a priest (Siddique). His serene look and quiet demeanour convince the priest and members of the troupe that he is the perfect person for the role. Only till Cleetus’ antecedents and unscrupulous character is revealed.
Set against the backdrop of theatre, the script by Benny P. Nayarambalam provides enough scope for some good laughs, though you’d end up wishing this were a complete laugh riot. The scriptwriter has also neatly cobbled up Biblical references with the storyline and there aren’t too many untidy patches showing.
Marthandan, who has been an associate director in the industry for more than a decade, makes a safe debut.Mammootty’s portrayal of Cleetus is refreshing and fun in turns. Siddique, Suraj Venjaramood, P. Balachandran, Aju Varghese, Honey Rose and Sanam Shetty do justice to their roles, but in the end, are only meant to be satellites revolving around the superstar.
Tracing Cleetus’ transformation from evil to good, the film is a watchable fare. Does it mean resurrection for the superstar? Only, almost.
The review was first published in The Hindu.

High expectations belied

Film: Kunjananthante Kada (Malayalam)
Director: Salim Ahamed
Cast: Mammootty, Nyla Usha, Balachandra Menon, Siddique
A debut film that swept the National and State Film Awards. Screenings across the globe at prominent film festivals.
India’s Oscar entry in 2011. Rave reviews and much critical acclaim.
That’s a whole lot of baggage to handle. It is difficult to sweep those expectations under the carpet and view a director’s second film without drawing parallels to a brilliant first. It has almost been two years since Salim Ahamed’s Abu effortlessly walked into our hearts.
When Kunjananthan opened shop this weekend, the comparisons were inevitable.
In the imposing shadow of a frail Abu, Kunjananthan appears dwarf-like. But, nevertheless, the makers of Kunjananthante Kada deserve an objective review.
The idea of the neighbourhood provision store which becomes a point of reference in conversations, a meeting place, and even a landmark over time strikes an immediate chord with the viewer. So does the image of the shopkeeper behind jars of mouth-watering goodies.
His deep bond with the shop he inherits, carrying memories of filial affection and his refusal to part with it would have gone on to be a great story. One that would have cemented Salim Ahamed’s place in Malayalam cinema. But, only if he had remembered that the script is at the soul of a film.
Kunjananthan (Mammootty) manages a provision store in a small village in Kannur. Resigned to an unhappy marriage, it is this shop that is at the centre of his existence.
The owner of the building pleads with him to vacate the shop so he may settle his debts, but Kunjananthan does not relent.
Eviction, however, seems unavoidable when the government tries to acquire land for a road development project. Kunjanthan’s travails to retain the shop form the second-half of the film.
The film has everything else going for it.
A good story that offers a delightful peek into small town life, one that has been pushed to the fringes by filmmakers today.
The throbbing life in villages and the distinctive Kannur slang are refreshing. So are performances by a stellar cast – Mammootty as the eponymous hero, debutant Nyla Usha as his wife, Balachandra Menon as a self-taught lawyer and Siddique as the building’s owner.
Excellent background score by Issac Thomas Kottukappilly, music by M. Jayachandran and sound editing by Resul Pookkutty.
Stunning visuals by veteran cinematographer Madhu Ambat. Some good observations on development and growth, and comments on a Facebook-crazy, smartphone-addicted population. The ingredients are all just right, but without the chef’s master touch, the film ends up being a half-baked cake.
There are no easy answers to the development-displacement debate, and the filmmaker loses direction once he has swerved to take that giddy route.
With a storyline that fizzles out in the second half, the film leaves you unmoved.
Forget Adaminte Makan Abu, its many laurels, the director who held out a lot of promise and watch this one without strings attached. And you may be a little less disappointed.
The review was first published in The Hindu on September 1, 2013.

Lost labour of womanhood

Film: Kalimannu 

Director: Blessy
Cast: Shwetha Menon, Biju Menon, Suhasini
This is director Blessy’s la-la land! Here, the whole concept of womanhood centres on the woman’s right to deliver a baby. Motherhood is nothing more than 10 months of pregnancy and associated labour pangs.
The characters who people it are thoroughly convinced that thrusting visuals of delivery before the society is a sure way to deter people from committing crimes against women. And the woman who daringly delivers her baby through a live telecast is the ultimate champion of women’s rights.
Now, cut to reality! The film Kalimannu is, at best, a myopic take on women’s issues and at worst, crass commercialisation of one of life’s most beautiful experiences. That said, there is nothing objectionable about the delivery scenes that have created much uproar. It is everything else in the film that should anger you. That so much controversy was raked up for a scene lasting just about a minute is shameful, but that is topic for another article, another discussion.
Meera (Shwetha Menon) is an ‘item’ dancer in Bollywood, a convenient excuse for three item dances in the first-half. As her first film as heroine is set for release, her husband Shyam (Biju Menon) meets with an accident and is declared brain dead.
Meera wants to have his child through artificial insemination and thus begins her crusade against the big bad world of legal complications and prying media persons.
But the travails of the audience begin much before, at the beginning of the film, when they are presented a half-baked story (scripted by the director himself) with high airs.
The irony of characters mouthing concerns about women being viewed as commodities even as the lens zooms in on oodles of cleavage and much hip-shaking cannot be missed. All we see of the item dancer’s much-awaited ‘real’ woman role in a film is also some more hip-shaking.
For all the loud talk on the sanctity of motherhood, there is the parallel explicit advertisement of a fertility clinic and a stem cell bank.
It is also shocking that an ace director would forget that a subtext (Subhadra-Abhimanyu relationship) is often implied, and not emphasised through dialogues. What the film fails to achieve through visuals and performances, it seeks to make up through dialogue, and ends up being just a tortuous sermon.
With all that marketing on the film being the bond between the unborn child and the mother, one wonders what prevented the director from going ahead and portraying just that. In a film touted as a “tribute to motherhood”, pretensions and artifices seem not just out of place, but sacrilegious.
The only highlights of the movie are the songs ‘Laalee’ and ‘Shalabhamayi’ penned by O.N.V. Kurup and composed by M. Jayachandran. Shwetha Menon as the protagonist Meera, delivers a beautiful baby, but sadly, not a convincing performance. The characters of Biju Menon and Suhasini are largely left unexplored.
Nevertheless, Blessy has definitely succeeded on one count — in silencing the film’s critics. All those moralists who raised hell before the release must be now busy burying their heads in shame for aiding the film’s undeserved media attention. The director also uses the controversies the film generated as material to pad up the second half.
With a subject that was stretched beyond its one-hour worth of content, it is the audience who writhe in pain over Blessy’s ‘labour’ of love. Kalimannu is that point of realisation for the Malayali audience that the director of some of the most poetic films in recent times (KazchaThanmathraBrahmaram, andPranayam) has, but, feet of clay.
The review was first published in The Hindu on August 25, 2013

Friday, August 16, 2013

A riveting ride

Film Review: Neelakasham Pachakadal Chuvanna Bhoomi

Director: Sameer Thahir
Cast: Dulquer Salman, Sunny Wayne, Surja Bala, Dhritiman Chatterjee, Ena Saha
Neelakasham Pachakadal Chuvanna Bhoomi (Blue skies, green waters, red earth). There is something in the very title that connects. For when was the last time we really saw the wide firmaments, the deep waters and the picturesque world around? Stuck within the four walls of our mechanical existences, the title beckons you to go out there, on the road and explore. Explore the world outside and the more complex one inside.
In Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’, protagonists Sal and Dean knew that they ought not to stop till they get “there”. Where they were unsure of, but they knew they must keep going. Their “life on the road” defined the Beat Generation of post-war America.
In Sameer Thahir’s latest directorial venture, Kasi (Dulquer Salman), along with friend Suni (Sunny Wayne), hits the road in search of answers. Unlike Kerouac’s characters, this is not a journey for the sake of one, but one in which the destination is more or less in sight.
Nevertheless, this journey of self-introspection that also touches upon politics, love, friendship, family, religion and revolution is one of the most intense coming-of-age movies in Malayalam. Unlike Bollywood’s Dil Chahta Hai or Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, the film does not celebrate breathtaking locales, but rather focuses on the ride.
This is one movie that delivers what it promises. On the road through and through, the film is a visual treat, with riveting music and minimalist dialogue. Kasi begins his journey from Kozhikode to the North-East, first to get over, and then to find his love Assi (Surja Bala). He is joined by his friend Suni and their camaraderie is beautifully depicted, not through tall claims of friendship, but knowing glances and friendly pats. The motorcycle, signboards, milestones and traffic signs too take on a character of their own in the movie.
Kasi and Suni meet many others on their trip — some who have lost their way and some in search of newer trajectories, but they all have their own destinations and must go their separate ways.
Dulquer Salman delivers an intense performance as Kasi who maintains a calm exterior even when torn apart by myriad inner conflicts.
His powerful narration sets the pace for the journey, and never once falters. All the actors — even the ones in minor roles — put up compelling performances. Sunny Wayne, Surja Bala, Ena Saha and Dhritiman Chatterjee deserve special mention.
But it is Hashir Mohamed’s well-crafted script with smart one-liners and casual yet deep observations; Gireesh Gangadharan’s stunning visuals and Sameer Thahir’s directorial mastery that make the ride worthwhile.
That said, this is no dream ride either. The movie loses steam in parts in the second half, and the climax could have been more powerful. It also cannot be overlooked that the film appeals to a very niche audience — the English-speaking, mall trotting, urban youth.
But given the youthful exuberance of the movie and its ability take you along on the ride, these cannot be listed as hurdles. Like you must hit the road to feel the real adrenaline rush, you must hit the theatres to truly experience this riveting ride. Bon voyage!
The review was first published in The Hindu, August 11, 2013

A forgettable trip

Film Review: Kadal Kadannu Oru Mathukutty

Director: Ranjith
Cast: Mammootty, Siddique, Nedumudi Venu, P. Balachandran, Muthumani, Alisha Mohammed
The non-resident Keralite’s celebrated nostalgia and his search for redemption in his homeland, garnished with ladles of camaraderie and pinches of bitter experiences is just the perfect recipe for a festival release. Add to that a superstar as the central character, an ensemble cast, a director whose name carries reverberations of box-office hits and it is almost a winning formula. Well, almost. There could, always, be exceptions. Ranjith’s Kadal Kadannu Oru Mathukutty is one such exception.
George Mathew aka Mathukutty (Mammootty) is a man on a mission. He has been entrusted by the Malayali association of Mettmann in Germany to rope in actor Mohanlal for their silver jubilee celebrations. Bullied by his wife (Muthumani), ignored by his children and eager to go home, Mathukutty grabs the opportunity and heads to Pathanamthitta, his hometown.
After rounds of the very predictable catching up with old friends and long-winding walks down memory lane later, events go out of control (as does the already tottering script) till the NRK’s rose-tinted view of God’s own country is smothered by ground realities. Strangely, it is only the viewers who feel that sense of déjà vu with a stale plot.
If you are wondering what’s new here, there is the setting in Germany (emphasised enough times to turn you off) and the fact that it is not just the protagonist’s expectations that come crashing down.
What director-scriptwriter Ranjith serves up for the much-awaited festival season is an insipid fare of leftovers, devoid of the ‘spirit’ of his previous outings. A patchwork of a script from a master scenarist with failed attempts at humour, satire and the absurd and a poor choice of actors (most of them versatile, but unsuited for their respective roles) leave the viewer disappointed. Dangling before the viewers, a glittering array of popular stars in cameos (Mohanlal, Dileep, Jayaram, et al.) is little compensation.
There is some talk of Gandhism accompanied by blaring background music (whatever happened to subtleties?), some on how money makes the world go round (think Pranchiyettan and the Saint andIndian Rupee), some on the vices of drinking (Spirit) and very little that is original or new.
Casting actors who have scripted recent successes or carved niches for themselves cannot salvage a movie that does not quite appeal to the sensibility or intelligence of the “average film-goer”. The director’s voiceover that booms at the end of the film almost seems like his excuse for letting his fans down.
Two strong points in the script are left unexplored: One: the character of Vidyadharan (Tini Tom) as the one-man media outfit that rakes up controversies. And two: the concept of NRIs switching on a mental calculator that is perpetually converting dollars/euros into rupee. Tiny strokes of brilliance lost in a confused plot.
Mammootty’s performance as the unassuming, submissive Mathukutty is that of a master at work. Let down by a weak script and not finding enough support in competent co-actors who are similarly tied down, the actor’s efforts are almost wasted. Mathukutty crossed the seas and arrived with a lot of expectations. He came, he saw, but did not conquer. And his trip remains largely forgettable.
The review was first published in The Hindu, August 11, 2013

Simple tale, deep echoes

Film Review: 101 Chodyangal

Director: Sidhartha Siva
Cast: Minon, Indrajith, Murugan, Lena
Standing on a hillock, gazing upon a beautiful twilight and stretches of greenery that lie down below, his teacher asks: Why does a blue sky turn reddish at dusk? Little Anilkumar Bokaro repeats the question. But as is the case with most of his questions, he receives no answer. In the distance, slogans of labour rights resound as workers take out a rally. Often, the answers lie nearby, within our grasp, but somehow tend to remain elusive.
Anilkumar Bokaro (Minon), named so by his father who dreams of his son becoming an industrialist, is so full of wonder and curiosity in a way children often are. His inquisitiveness is met with vague answers, reprimands, and most often, silences. When his teacher at school (Indrajith) seeks Anil’s help to frame 101 questions (101 Chodyangal of the title), it turns an obsession for the child. He grips his notebook, and goes about the verdant countryside of Kaviyoor, searching for questions.
Questions also stare at Anil’s father (Murugan) who has recently lost his job at a sugar factory and is at a loss to make ends meet. While the child embarks on his journey to find questions, his father is on a quest to find answers.
Actor-turned-director Sidhartha Siva blends soulfully the parallel quests, scripting to near perfection a simple tale with deep echoes. (The National Award for Best First Film of a Director was, no doubt, well-earned.) 
In a scene, the little boy is seated near the kerosene stove at home, watching the water boil in a pot. Hungry, he is waiting for his father to bring rice. Out of curiosity he moves the lids and watches the bubbles rise. He then opens his notebook, and writes, “Why do bubbles appear when water boils?” Each question he painstakingly gathers is, in fact, his very life.
101 Chodyangal is full of such instances, straight out of life, simple yet profound.  No, this is not just a children’s film. It is, instead, one of growing up, of the bond between parents and children, of teachers who take learning beyond classrooms, of fathers who have no worldly possessions but are their children’s heroes, of mothers who hide their tears to gift their children a smile, of children who are devoid of questions, of a struggling working class, of poverty that exists despite our best efforts to sweep it under the carpet, of all the little joys and pains of childhood. The film is also one of a world so sure of its answers, and a world that is full of questions, and the merging of the two. It is no feel-good movie, not all dollops of innocence and characters without a flaw. As the child realizes, it is not an ideal world out there.
Minon who won the National Award for Best Child Artiste for his portrayal of Anilkumar Bokaro had set expectations high and effortlessly lives up to it. Murugan as the man who quietly resigns to his circumstances puts up a stellar performance. So does Lena in another remarkable role as Anil’s mother. And long after you have walked out of the theatre, Prabhath E.K.’s fresh frames and Bijibal’s background score lingers in the mind.
After compiling more than half the questions, Anil realises that he might know a few answers but chooses not to know them. Does he manage to frame the remaining questions? Does he find answers to those? Where does his father’s quest take him? Will his mentally-retarded little sister be cured? Will the family manage to shift to a new house? In a world that has no easy answers, some questions are also best left unanswered. 
This is one movie you owe your children before they outgrow the wonder in them. But most of all, this is one movie you owe to the child in you.
The review was first published in The Hindu, July 28, 2013

This love story crawls

Film Review: Crocodile Love Story 

Director: Anoop Ramesh
Cast: Praveen Prem, Avanthika Mohan, Ashokan, Manikuttan, Kalabhavan Mani

The concept of the ‘interval’ is an irritant for some movies, but for some others it serves as a blessing. The Crocodile Love Story fits the latter category. You could saunter in half-way through the movie and not miss a thing. No exaggeration here.
Boy-meets-girl stories are the staple of our cinema, and it is often light strokes of brilliance that set one apart from the other. Debutant director Anoop Ramesh set out to add a twist in the “tale” by tossing in a crocodile and claiming to introduce ‘animatronics’ (inspired from Steven Spielberg’s classic Jurassic Park) for the first time in Malayalam cinema.
An hour into the movie you are left wondering why the movie was titled or marketed asCrocodile Love Story. The love story is insipid and the crocodile nowhere in sight. And when the reptile does surface, after an excruciating hour-and-a-half, and the slightest possibility of an adventure rears its head, the plot shifts to a supposed “satire” instead.
Kiran (Praveen Prem) and Nitya (Avanthika Mohan) have run away from home to spend time together. Marooned on an island, they are perched on a tree, with a menacing crocodile lying in wait below. But going by their reactions and their eagerness to grab the packet of chips and water bottle that lay beside the reptile, you’d be excused for thinking it could have been a dog in place of the crocodile. That, on a more serious note, would have saved the filmmakers some bucks and definitely evoked more laughs from the viewers.
Joining the misadventure are mediapersons who set up camp and begin live streaming, and ill-equipped police officers and fire and rescue personnel.
Well, if the makers had their eye on a comic satire of sorts, they should probably have looked up the 2010 Hindi film Peepli Live. Or the film with a man-eater as a central character should have been made on the lines of Hollywood thrillers or even I.V. Sasi’s Mrigaya nearer home.
Marketing the movie solely on the claim of using Hollywood-like animatronics and the character of a crocodile, with no scope for either, is inexcusable. And no crocodile can be expected to save a film that was in deep waters from the start.
A weak script, poor performance by lead actors and false marketing do the film in. Though Anoop Ramesh, who has served as assistant to leading directors such as Shyamaprasad and Shaji Kailas, wields technical control over the film, that does not make up for the squandering of a storyline that did have potential.
This love story crawls, through and through, at a snail’s pace and not that of a crocodile’s.

The review was first published in The Hindu, July 21, 2013